Actual book review: an enjoyable, untidy compendium of a book – the author’s fake smugness, modesty and self deprecation pulls off the trick of hauling you enthusiastically through musings, memoir, memory tricks, mesmerism and magic.

I’ve included Brown in this atheist’s progress because (apart from referencing the Dawkins book) it provides an additional important perspective, that of being an ex-Christian, and because its a good excuse to go on and on about myself. (What happened to good old fashioned blogging?)

Nearly every chunk of this book relates an interest of mine in common with DB – except for a section on mnemonic methods. (I have a terrible memory and found these sections actually useful.) I grew up interested in magic and the oddities of perception, but I wasn’t myself a believer. I was never brought up to believe – my parents were orthodox social workers – and i found school RE lessons baffling from a very early age. I equated the first Bible stories I was exposed to with the brilliant (and way more exciting) Greek myths I enjoyed reading (yes I’m THAT middle class). My mother tells me that I found the idea of heaven ‘a bit unlikely’.

I did join a christian society at school (i think it was just to get an early school dinner) and a lot of my friends at college were christian (and scientists), so I have had more than average occasion for a non-believer to consider such (specifically christian) ideas. And that consideration has ended in bafflement everytime. I had a friend who seemed to believe in god because she had experienced speaking in tongues. Whatever sort of phenomena talking in tongues is (and there are many natural possibilities) even if it was super-natural, how did she come to believe that it was a god, specifically THE god, the loving god, of the new testament that was responsible? But I could never raise these points in person – it’s socially impossible. Which brings me back to the book in hand, and the story of when Derren met Derek:

“my own apparently strong feelings gave way to to the simple social code of being nice. Maybe his did too… I may not like what people like Acorah do… but there are finer things in life to be concerned with”

It’s a lovely anecdote, and you could use it to beat up on Dawkins, or, being more generous, see that Dawkins must feel he has a stronger professional duty that trumps such social codes. Oddly, the only person who comes out badly from this chance meeting is Myleene Klass (read the book), but once this Acorah anecdote caveat is out of the way we get this plum: “Knowledge of cold-reading techniques can protect you from abusive scum who would happily exploit you in your most desperate hour”

I laughed.

There are two more anecdotes I must relate here. Firstly from a woman who was appallingly used by Doris Stokes to shore up a flagging performance. Her son had died tragically so when Stokes’ show came to tow, this woman was contacted and given a complimentary seat. The repellent way she was treated was far from the wooly comforting that many people imagine psychics can bring to the bereaved.

Secondly, in a long footnote, Brown expresses regret about the way his Zombie stunt was edited. He makes it clear here that the mark was definitely involved before hand – which makes it way more acceptable as a stunt, but it does demonstrate that his shows can be more deceptive than is comfortable with the context of his tricks. They really did portray him as a stranger off the street.

Principally the book is a primer for skeptics, revolving around two key tenets:

* Personal conviction and veracity do not go hand in hand
* We are deceived accidentally, purposefully by others, but much more powerfully by ourselves

The various shortcomings of our own cognitive apparatus are fascinating to read about – and the standard mental illusions are trotted out here in quick order. We can all use this information to set the “error bars of experience”. If you are a show off you can use this knowledge to make people think you are an evil mind reading half demon.